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first basemen

This post profiles the careers of some Negro League first basemen who have not been inducted in the Hall of Fame.

Bill Pettus was a strong Texan who excelled during the Deadball Era.  Able to play behind the dish as well, Bill typically batted in the heart of the order.  His career was rather nomadic.  Most seasons he would play for at least two teams since he often jumped clubs in the middle of a season.  Despite his footloose ways, Pettus was a valuable man on a club because of his batting skills and his ability to speak Spanish.  Bill is noted for stealing signs when his club would play Spanish-speaking teams.

A clever defender, George Giles was another nomadic Negro Leaguer who played all over the nation.  He was with St. Louis when they won pennants in the early 1930s and he played off and on with his hometown Kansas City Monarchs throughout the 1920s and 1930s.  A decent hitter for average but with minimal power, Giles earned a reputation with his glove.  He was adept at digging balls out of the dirt and covered more ground than most first basemen of his time.

Longtime Monarchs first baseman Buck O’Neil gained national fame when Ken Burns used him quite liberally in his documentary titled Baseball.  Buck had a full life in baseball.  He starred at first base for the Monarchs through their powerful years, he won a batting title after missing three seasons to World War II, he was a fixture in the Negro League All-Star Games as a first baseman and manager and he became the first black coach in the Major Leagues.  Mister O’Neil was baseball’s greatest ambassador until his death a few years back.  There was a big push to get Buck inducted into the Hall of Fame but he fell a vote shy of election.  The Hall of Fame decided to honor Buck nonetheless and created a Buck O’Neil Award and placed a bronze statue of him at Cooperstown.

 image of Buck O’ Neil

Born George Henry Carr, the large Californian was known to black baseball simply as “Tank” Carr.  Big and heavy, Tank was a powerful switch-hitting first baseman for the Hilldale club of the 1920s.  A gifted natural hitter, Carr could hit for high averages and true to his stout build, walloped his share of homeruns.  Carr was uncommonly fast for a man his size as he could steal 30 bases a season.  Like most big men however, Tank excelled for a handful of years but his stardom didn’t last as long as it could have had he been in better condition. 

Lou Dials made his rounds in the Negro Leagues.  A first baseman who could play anywhere in the outfield as well, Dials was a high average hitter during the 1920s.  He starred with the American Giants in the mid to late 1920s but after a few years of bouncing around from team to team, he went to Mexico and played there four years.  When he returned to the States, World War II was underway and Lou spent the entire war on a war plant job and played ball in an Industrial League.

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This is a list of HOF eligible first basemen that I haven’t profiled with a biography on this blog.  They are listed in order of batting average–highest to lowest.

Moon Harris (.317), Lew Fonseca (.316), Harvey Hendrick (.308), Zeke Bonura (.307), Hal Morris (.304), Sam Leslie (.304), John Kruk (.300), Buck Jordan (.299), Buddy Hassett (.292), Hal Chase (.291), David Segui (.291), Joe Cunningham (.291), Mike Hargrove (.290), Walter Holke (.287), Eddie Waitkus (.285), Bruce Bochte (.282), Dick Siebert (.282), Pat Tabler (.282), Candy LaChance (.280)

Dick Hoblitzell (.278), Leon Durham (.277), Mark Carreon (.277), Danny Cater (.276), Willie Montanez (.275), Donn Clendenon (.274), Larry Biittner (.273), Babe Young (.273), Kitty Bransfield (.270), Walt Dropo (.270), Mike Ivie (.269), Eddie Robinson (.269), Dan Driessen (.267), Dale Long (.267), Gerald Perry (.265), Dick Stuart (.264), Sid Bream (.264), Mark McGwire (.263), Dots Miller (.263), Doc Johnston (.263), John Jaha (.263), Mike Aldrete (.263), Willie Upshaw (.262), Johnny Ellis (.262), Pete O’Brien (.261), Ed Kranepool (.261), Jason Thompson (.261), Babe Dahlgren (.261), Jim Gentile (.260)

Glenn Davis (.259), Ron D. Jackson (.259), Joe Pepitone (.258), Cliff Johnson (.258), Kevin Young (.258), Dave Bergman (.258), Paul Sorrento (.257), Jeff King (.256), Joe Collins (.256), Lee Stevens (.254), Dick Gernert (.254), Dan Meyer (.253), Rich Reese (.253), Jim Spencer (.250), Frank Isbell (.250), Don Mincher (.249), John Milner (.249), Greg Brock (.248), Deron Johnson (.244), Nate Colbert (.243), Mike Jorgensen (.243), Bob Robertson (.242), Mike Hegan (.242), Ken Phelps (.239) and Steve Balboni (.229)

George “The Firebrand” Stovall was a hot-tempered Missouri country boy who was a fan favorite of the Cleveland Indians during the Deadball Era.  During Stovall’s tenure with Cleveland the club was usually referred to as the Naps after star player Nap Lajoie, but George was a valuable piece to the team’s success.  One of the top first basemen of his day, Firebrand was an elite defender with a decent stick, but his volatile nature got the better of him at times.  He once was ousted as player/manager when he let loose an ample stream of tobacco in an umpire’s face after a disagreement. 

Born in Leeds, Missouri, Firebrand was already 26-years-old when given his first look in the Majors.  He followed brother Jesse “Scout” Stovall to the Majors and even though Scout pitched for Cleveland in 1903, the Stovall bothers weren’t teammates on the Naps because Jesse joined Detroit during George’s rookie season.  In his freshman season, Firebrand hit .298–it would be the highest mark of his career.  Stovall began to play regularly in 1905 but not at a fixed position.  He was employed at first, second and third base his first three years in the Majors before settling in at the initial sack in 1907. 

A gifted defender at first base, Firebrand possessed exceptional range afield.  The quick fielding Missouri boy led his league in assists four times and fielding percentage twice.  Firebrand enjoyed perhaps his finest year in 1908 when he hit .292 and set career highs in runs scored, hits (6th in AL), doubles (5th in AL) and total bases (7th in AL).  The Naps were contenders during the Deadball Era–they finished second in 1908–but never could get to the World Series while Stovall was with the club. 

In 1909 Firebrand set a personal high in triples and began a three-year string of leading first basemen in assists.  The following year he upped his RBI total and led American League first basemen with a .988 fielding percentage.  In 1911, his last year with Cleveland, he again led first basemen in fielding percentage and set a career high with 79 RBI.  Stovall managed the Indians most of the 1911 season but his intense qualities led to his trade to the Browns for Lefty George.  The Browns dismissed Bobby Wallace as skipper after a poor start in 1912 and gave the manager’s job to Firebrand who acted as player/manager.  St. Louis finished in seventh place under George’s watch and when he splattered the face of a cantankerous arbiter in 1913, the Browns dismissed him and gave his job to Jimmy Austin.

Firebrand was essentially run out of the American League for creating a makeshift spittoon.  But fortunately for Stovall the Federal League began play as a third Major League in 1914 and he caught on as first baseman/manager of the Kansas City Packers.  In the Federal League’s first year of operation, Firebrand had a heckuva season by setting a career high with seven homeruns while also driving home 75 runs.  But he was unable to duplicate his success in 1915 and when the Federal League folded, Firebrand’s days in the Majors were over.  After his playing days, the 40-year-old Stovall helped his country during time of war when he worked at a shipyard during World War I.  Fifteen years later, during WWII, Firebrand returned to the shipyards and helped build vessels during the Second World War.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,414/R 547/H 1,382/2B 231/3B 56/HR 15/RBI 564/SB 142/BB 174/SO 324/BA .265/OBP .293/SA .339

Although Siebern is best remembered today as one of the players the Yankees traded to the Kansas City A’s to land the great Roger Maris, what typically gets lost is the fact that Norm was a helluva player for the A’s.  An on-base stud with decent power, Norm made three American League All-Star teams and won a Gold Glove.  The left-handed hitter/right-handed thrower was awarded MVP votes three of the four years he played for the lowly Kansas City Athletics.

Originally signed by the Yankees in 1951, Siebern was a spring training sensation for the Bronx Bombers in 1956.  An injury kept him out of action for a time but when he was finally healthy the hot bat he wielded in the spring had turned cold.  He spent the next year down in the bushes, punishing minor league pitchers.  He made the Yankees in 1958 and was their regular left fielder.  Norm won his Gold Glove Award that year as he hit an even .300 with 14 dingers for the AL Champs.  The Yankees went to the World Series and Norm helped them topple the Braves.

The Yankees were managed by goofy Casey Stengel at the time and Case enjoyed platooning his players.  Due to the constant shuffle, Norm never exceeded 55 RBI while with the Yankees.  After the 1959 season, Siebern wouldn’t have to worry about the platoon situation since he was dealt to the doormat Athletics with former Yankees icons Hank Bauer and Don Larsen for Roger Maris.  Norm, who had played strictly left field for the Yankees, rotated between left and first base with the Athletics.  His first year with Kansas City he socked 19 homeruns and 31 doubles… but he was just getting warmed up.

In the famous 1961 season, Norm drove in 98 runs and posted a nifty .384 on-base percentage.  Offensive numbers were inflated throughout baseball in ’61 before they came back down in 1962–but nobody told Norm.  Siebern enjoyed his greatest season in 1962 when he scored 114 runs, drove in 117 and drew 110 walks.  He also set personal highs with 25 homeruns, 185 base hits and an amazing offensive line of .308 BA/.412 OBP/.495 SA.  Named to the first of three consecutive All-Star teams, Norm had settled in at first base by this time and gave the A’s more production out the position than the Yankees were getting.

Norm reached 80 runs scored and RBI in 1963 but his numbers, which were solid, weren’t as awe-inspiring as they had been in ’62 and the A’s traded him to Baltimore for all-or-nothing slugger Diamond Jim Gentile.  As the Orioles everyday first baseman in 1964, Siebern honed his batting eye to perfection.  He paced the American League with 106 walks and posted his seventh consecutive season with a double-digit homerun total.  But when his power began to fade in the mid 1960s, Norm’s days as a regular were over.  He would spend some time as a reserve/pinch hitter with the Giants and Red Sox in the late 1960s.  He had a pinch hit single off Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in the 1967 World Series–his last Fall Classic action.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,406/R 662/H 1,217/2B 206/3B 38/HR 132/RBI 636/SB 18/BB 708/SO 748/BA .272/OBP .369/SA .423

Predominately a designated hitter, Thornton was a terrific power threat who always posted solid on-base percentages.  The heavy hitter owned a solid batting eye.  He would often draw 80+ walks a season which pushed his OBP near the .360 mark.  A two-time All-Star, Andre had three 30 homerun seasons and a pair of 100 RBI campaigns.  His 100 RBI seasons weren’t of the hollow variety–he achieved them with the second division Indians.  Thornton spent the bulk of his career in Cleveland and thus never played in a postseason game.

A big power-hitter from Tuskegee, Alabama, Andre was initially signed by the Phillies in 1967.  While a minor leaguer, Thornton as traded twice; first from the Phillies to the Braves and later from the Braves to the Cubs for Joe Pepitone.  Andre would make his Major League debut with Chicago in 1973.  He only got into 17 games for the Cubs that year but played regularly in ’74.  That year he hit ten homeruns with a solid .368 OBP.  Andre played more in 1975 and banged out 18 homers with an amazing .428 OBP.  This mark was good for fourth in the NL and he also established his personal best batting average with a .293 mark.

Thornton struggled mightily in 1976 and was traded to Montreal for Steve Renko and Larry Biittner.  Unable to get on track north of the border, the Expos shipped him off to the Indians in a deal that resulted in highway robbery.  Montreal received the forgettable Jackie Brown while Andre became a star for the Tribe.  Andre enjoyed a breakout season his first year with the Indians.  He clubbed 28 homeruns and set a personal high with a .527 slugging average as Cleveland’s everyday first baseman.  But Andre was just getting warmed up.  In 1978 he set personal highs with 97 runs scored and 33 homeruns (4th in the AL).  His 93 walks was also good for fourth in the league which pushed his OBP up to .377.

Still the Indians regular first baseman in 1979, Andre socked 26 homeruns and rove in 93 runs, but his career would be altered the next year.  Andre missed the entire 1980 season with a knee injury and when he came back his mobility was greatly diminished.  Never much of an acrobat before the injury, when he came back to Cleveland he was used strictly as a designated hitter.  As the Indians everyday DH in 1982, Thornton made his first All-Star team by finishing third in RBI with a career high 116.  He also set personal highs in walks (109) and base hits (161) while clubbing 32 dingers and pacing the league in intentional walks. 

Thornton raised his batting average to .281 in 1983 but his power numbers fell off.  He proved that he wasn’t done as a slugger the following year when he matched his single season high of 33 homers in ’84.  An All-Star again, Andre was one of the few gentlemen in the game to reach 90 runs scored and 90 RBI.  The big DH walked 91 times and whiffed just 79 times which gave him his sixth season with more walks than whiffs.  In the mid 1980s the Indians were the AL’s doormat and the aging Thornton was the heart of their lineup.  When he started to slip in 1985, Cleveland turned to younger players while Andre mentored them.  He hit 22 dingers in ’85 and 17 in 1986 but his batting average was only .229 in the latter campaign.  When he was unable to get going in 1987, Thornton called it a career.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,565/R 792/H 1,342/2B 244/3B 22/HR 253/RBI 895/SB 48/BB 876/SO 851/BA .254/OBP .360/SA .452

A high average hitter with no position, Runnels got into over 600 games at first and second base and also saw over 400 games at shortstop.  The skinny Texan was a solid slap-hitter who didn’t have the power of the big first basemen of his time–men like Kluszewski and Norm Cash.  Nevertheless, Runnels was always a batting champion threat.  He won two batting titles and missed out on a third when teammate Ted Williams edged him out on the final day of the 1958 season.  A decent hitter for the Senators before he joined the Red Sox, Runnels became a hitting sensation at Fenway thanks to slashing liners off the Green Monster.

Runnels was initially signed by the Senators after WWII.  The Senators groomed Pete as a shortstop and called him up to take over the post in 1951.  After a decent rookie showing that year, Runnels enjoyed his breakout season in 1952.  He hit .285 with a solid .363 on-base percentage but his slugging average was a meager .333.  The slight Texan spent his home games playing in the spacious Griffith Stadium and since he didn’t have the muscle to hit the ball over the outfielder’s heads, they played him accordingly.  His numbers fell off in 1953 but he legged out fifteen triples in ’54–which placed second in the league.  But by this time Runnels’ less-than-stellar glove necessitated a move from shortstop.

Shifted to second base for the 1955 season, Pete hiked his batting average above .280 again.  Always a sensational batsman, Runnels posted more walks than strikeouts that year.  Over the course of his career he only played one season in which he fanned more than he walked.  A good hitter, Runnels joined the elite batters in ’56 when he seemed to put it all together.  He hit .310 with a career high 76 RBI.  Runnels knocked out 179 hits as he rotated between first base and second during the season.  The positional carousal was more erratic in ’57 when Pete started a number of games at first, second and third base.  His offensive numbers suffered and the Senators soured on him.  Traded to the Red Sox for Albie Pearson and Norm Zauchin, Runnels became an instant star at Fenway.

Given his less-than-imposing stature, new teammate Ted Williams convinced Runnels to slap the ball the other way and take full advantage of the short porch at Boston.  Runnels responded in kind and elevated his batting average to .322 his first year in Boston.  He and Williams were neck-and-neck in the batting race that season when Ted passed him by the final game of the season.  Defensively, Boston used Pete exclusively on the right side of the infield but couldn’t decide on first or second base.  They knew one thing for certain: he was a fine hitter.

Named to his first All-Star team in 1959, Pete hit .314 with an exceptional .415 OBP.  Playing with Williams paid off as Pete posted an OBP above .400 each season they were teammates while he never reached those heights before they played together.  With Ted at the end of his rope in 1960, Runnels captured his first batting title with a .320 mark.  An All-Star again, Pete was the top hitter in Boston but the Red Sox had little else.  Despite the fact that he seemed to always be slashing out safeties, Pete only drove in 35 runs on a poor Boston team.  He hit .317 in the offensive explosion that was 1961 baseball and then captured his second batting title with a .326 mark in 1962.  An All-Star for the third time, Runnels reached double digits in homeruns the only time in his career that season.

With the expansion Houston Colt .45s in operation, Runnels asked Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey to deal him to his home state and the Hall of Fame owner obliged.  But the return trip to Texas didn’t help.  A batting champ in ’62, Pete’s batting average fell off the table and he hit a weak .253 his first year playing in his home state.  After a poor start to the 1964 season, Runnels decided to hang them up.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,799/R 876/H 1,854/2B 282/3B 64/HR 49/RBI 630/SB 37/BB 844/SO 627/BA .291/OBP .375/SA .378

An on-base percentage machine, Fletcher was a terrific first baseman before World War II who lost two years to military service during the Great War.  A master at pitch recognition, Elbie drew in the excess of 100 walks four separate times over the course of his career.  Given his supreme batting eye, Fletcher topped the National League in on-base percentage three consecutive years: 1940-1942.  More than just a gifted on-base player, Elbie could also swat the occasional homerun and once had a 100 RBI season.

A native of Milton, Massachusetts, Elbie made the Majors in 1934 at the age of 18.  He didn’t stick in the Majors at such a young age.  The Braves summoned him back to the Majors for good in 1937 when they named him their regular first baseman.  Elbie struggled his first full season in the Majors with a meager .247 batting average and 56 walks compared to 64 strikeouts.  But the youngster was just getting his feet wet at the Major League level and he would never again strikeout more than he walked in any subsequent season. 

Fletcher showed some promise in 1938 but didn’t breakout until he was traded to the Pirates early in the ’39 season.  Sent to the Pirates for Broadway Bill Schuster, the trade was a steal for Pittsburgh.  Elbie hit .303 with a dozen homeruns the rest of the season.  But 1940 was the year Elbie established himself as the premier on-base percentage man in the National League.  Although he hit a decent .273, Elbie drew a league high 119 walks which boosted his on-base percentage to an NL best .418.  But the first baseman proved to be quite the run-getter as well.  Elbie set a career high with 104 RBI and swatted a personal best 16 round trippers. 

The Pirates weren’t contenders during the 1940s.  Fletcher was one of the few bright spots Pittsburgh had after the end of the Waner Brother days.  In 1941, Elbie showed that his monster season in ’40 wasn’t a fluke.  He paced the senior circuit in walks and on-base percentage again.  A gifted defender as well, Elbie paced first basemen in assists (he would do this six times in his career) and finished second in putouts.  He followed up that season with another terrific campaign in 1942 as Elbie paced the NL in on-base percentage for the third consecutive season.

With the war raging overseas, many star players left the game.  Baseball had a much different look in 1943 with such stars as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio joining the service after the 1942 season.  Elbie remained on the diamond in 1943 and posted a stellar .395 on-base percentage (fourth in the NL) while leading his position peers with a .996 fielding percentage.  But after the season Elbie left the Pirates and served in the military for the duration.

After the war ended Fletcher returned to the Pirates and like many other players wasn’t the same upon his return to the Majors.  He only mustered a .256 batting average–the worst mark he fashioned since his first full season in the Majors.  The Pirates stuck with him, hoping that he’d regain his form in 1947, but when he failed to do so, he lost his job to an aging Hank Greenberg.  Elbie returned to the minors in 1948 where he got back on track and the Braves gave him a final look in ’49.  That year Elbie socked eleven homeruns on an amazing .396 on-base percentage.  It was his last season in the Majors.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,415/R 723/H 1,323/2B 228/3B 58/HR 79/RBI 616/SB 32/BB 851/SO 495/BA .271/OBP .384/SA .390